Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This article is the first of two parts discussing the concerns of IC/BCC groups on this campus. Tomorrow’s article will delve further into difficult issues IC/BCC groups have dealt with, including perceived misunderstandings regarding funding of events, defining their role on campus, and how they want to shape their future.
Over the last week, students from the Intercultural Center and the Black Cultural Center have expressed intense dissatisfaction with candidates running for the office of Student Council President. The lead up to the election has been characterized by mass e-mailings, flyers, and even a YouTube video denouncing the candidates. The three candidates, Louis Rosenberg ’08, Peter Gardner ’08, and Rasa Petrauskaite ’08, have disappointed large portions of the student body with their perceived lack of engagement with issues relating to queer students and students of color. Carlos Villafuerte ’08, also running for President, is abroad this semester, and for the most part, has been absent in discussions surrounding these issues.
According to current Student Council Vice President Sam Asarnow ’08, n a campus where Student Council does not often play a central role, “this is the first time in a few years an election has been so politicized.” Students became concerned during the first Presidential Forum last Tuesday, when students were given the opportunity to ask each of the candidates questions about how they would serve the student body. The Daily Gazette’s coverage of the talk can be found here.
When candidates were asked how they would reach out to students of color and queer students during their terms, “The answer the candidates gave were very, very dissatisfying.” said Asarnow, who moderated the debate. One student cited involvement with Earthlust and the Good Food Project, neither of which are cultural groups. The other candidates discussed dorm representatives, while another talked about tabling at Sharples. “None of them addressed the issue, none of the candidates even used the word queer or student of color in their responses.” said Asarnow. A second student at the talk pointed out that the candidates had completely dodged the question, and again, the candidates skirted around the issue in their answers. “I was sitting there almost in disbelief. I think they were very unprepared. None of them were involved with IC/BCC communities, and didn’t know how they could answer.” said Asarnow.
“I was surprised by the reaction of the IC/BCC members, but I understand where they are coming from,” said Petrauskaite in an email. “In retrospect, I think that the presidential debates provided an opportunity for the cultural groups to voice their long-standing dissatisfaction with the apparent lack of connection between the council and activism on campus.”
With students so dissatisfied with the first forum, interns at the IC decided to create a second forum for candidates to specifically address issues important to the cultural groups. “Right away, e-mails about the event began circulating. People read the coverage in The Daily Gazette, and said that’s not okay,” explained SQU IC intern Tatiana Cozzarelli ’08, who is also involved with COLORS and ENLACE. The initiative was led by Jose Aleman ’09, an IC intern, who was in communication with Joella Fink ’07, current president of Student Council. They decided it would be important to have a conversation with IC groups. Candidate Rosenberg said, “I was glad to hear that friends more involved in the IC/BCC leadership than I were preparing a second forum, and I welcomed the opportunity to speak to IC concerns in greater depth than the first forum allowed.”
The IC Big Room on Wednesday night was packed with 50 to 60 students representing all the different IC/BCC groups on campus, ready to ask questions of the candidates. “It was excellent to be in that IC room and see representatives of all IC/BCC groups on campus all in the same place. It was extremely powerful,” said Keith Benjamin ’09, a BCC intern. For some students, the purpose of the meeting was an accountability moment. “I don’t think that they could have all of the sudden become informed over night, but I hoped that being at the IC would’ve showed them how large of a community they had been ignoring.” explained Veronica Lim ’07. For others, the forum was a chance to see what candidates would do after having 24 hours to think about the issue. “We should’ve had this meeting regardless of what happened at the first forum.” said Luis Rodriguez ’09, outgoing president of ENLACE.
However, the second forum was largely a disappointment. One of the students asked how many events put on by the IC/BCC had the candidates attended. “The answer was essentially none, or very, very few. There have been at least three events put on by the IC/BCC every week this semester, and they had attended almost none.” said Cozzarelli. “They could’ve talked about Ride the Tide, Black History month, APIA month, the Cultural Show, the Ring discussions– so many events. They could’ve easily mentioned any one of these,” said Syeda Tasnim ’08. “It was really disheartening to hear,” said Camila Leiva ’09. “Especially since a lot of the people in these groups are very committed to organizing events.”
“There were certain candidates who were apologizing, certain individuals who were addressing the issue in a loophole fashion, certain individuals who were completely somewhere else, were not even addressing the specific issues,” said Benjamin. One student asked the candidates to discuss any subtleties of racism, sexism, or homophobia they may have seen manifested on this campus, a topic of a Ring discussion that occurred a few weeks ago. “One candidate, instead of answering the question, gave an example about some experiment with pencils. Did she even hear the question?” asked Benjamin.
Students claimed that it revealed a lack of commitment on the part of the candidates to educate themselves about a very large segment of the student body. Asarnow explained that, because the Student Council does not have individual representatives for different constituency groups, the President and Vice President have to be fully equipped to represent the entire campus. “The vice president and president are the only two students whose name Al Bloom has to know, the only two students who chat with the Board of Managers, the only two students who are on college planning for 2025 committee,” he said.
Benjamin explained that he is frightened by the aspect of having student leaders who are so uninformed regarding issues the IC/BCC faces. “If something goes down, what will you do? Where will Student Council stand up? Last year an assistant coach said all black players she’s dealed with are lazy– which caused an uproar. What will the student council do? Will they stand up with the diversity students?”
Gardner admitted that as a straight, white male he was in a very privileged position, and had a long way to go before he understood issues that the IC/BCC faced. “Although I have never been a member of an IC group, I know that my desire to take proactive steps toward becoming better educated about the concerns of the groups collectively as well as individually is sincere,” he explained in an email. Leiva lauded his honesty, but said that ignorance on these issues was shocking. “How could you be here for three years and not care about these issues? How could you not be interested?” she asked.
Cozzarelli echoed a similar sentiment. “It’s good that they want to change, that’s great. But that should’ve happened before running for the president. This conversation shouldn’t be an afterthought, or something only proposed to a bunch of students in the IC.” For Benjamin, it was important for candidates to bring something to the table first. “They will be representing us in meetings with the Board of Managers, in meetings with Vice President Maurice Eldridge, with President Al Bloom. I want to know that they are bringing something with them to build on.”
In response to the second forum, members and leaders of IC/BCC groups put out a statement expressing their disappointment with the current candidates. Though there are students running an anonymous “None of the Above” campaign, this option was not advocated by the IC/BCC groups. “We couldn’t get a consensus on what we ought to do strategically in terms of voting– whether ‘none of the above’ was a good option, or if one of the three candidates was a ‘lesser evil’,” explained Cozzarelli. “We don’t want to tell anyone how to vote. Instead, we wanted to express that though we are dissatisfied with all of the candidates, if one of them wins, we do want to work with them.”
The conflict has brought to light the relationship Student Council has with the IC/BCC groups, as well as groups on campus at large. According to Asarnow, the President is in extensive communication with the Board of Managers and President Al Bloom, but has almost no interaction with student groups. “S/he does not sit on the SBC or any other student committee, S/he does not even sit on the appointment committees. It becomes very important then that s/he educate themselves extensively about these issues on their own.”
Even if the Student Council President or Vice President wants to take action on a given issue, it is difficult to do so without a consensus among all of the representatives sitting on the council. “As a Council, we try to operate under consensus–or at least majority–and in [reference to issuing a statement on chalkings], we found that a majority didn’t share a perspective on the issue that allowed action,” explained Joella Fink ’07, current President of the Student Council.
At the same time, Fink believed that Student Council could have taken stronger positions on certain issues, but didn’t. She cites the opening of Tri-Co to non-students of color as a specific example. “I still think there was room for council to have done something big and brave–but, again, the vast majority on council didn’t really care all that much,” she lamented. “What we did then–all we did then–was organize a forum between the administration and the student body. I typed every word of that forum, and put it online so that students who couldn’t attend the meeting could hear how the administration justified their decision. But that’s something that I did because I felt it was important; that wasn’t a decision from council.”
According to Fink, unless the elected representatives are interested, there is a powerful limitation on what the Student Council President can achieve. “I would like council to be an ally [to the IC/BCC]; and I’m sorry that I haven’t done more.” Fink strongly believes that the only way for IC/BCC communities to benefit from the Council’s potential is to fill it with IC/BCC communities and allies. “I really hope it happens one day, and I wish I could have seen it in my time.”
According to Leiva, this election has been “a wakeup call for IC/BCC members” to do just that. “These are positions of incredible power, and it’s imperative that we organize to run a candidate for the next election,” she says. Asarnow is encourged by the fact that IC/BCC members are taking this message to heart. “In elections past people have just not really cared. People are now saying ‘Student Council does have power, and they can do something’. I’m encouraged that IC/BCC people are engaging with these issues. I’m encouraged that people are taking Student Council seriously.”
Disclosure: The reporter is a member of MSA and Deshi, two IC groups.